This work will be included in the forthcoming Pierre-Auguste Renoir digital catalogue raisonné, currently being prepared under the sponsorship of the Wildenstein Plattner Institute, Inc.
'To seek the gay and charming aspects of nature, the aspects that make us love it, that is [his] aim; his whole oeuvre has this as its goal.'
(Georges Rivière, ‘Les Intransigeants et les impressionistes: Souvenirs du salon libre de 1877’, L’Artiste, November 1977, quoted in Ruth Berson, ed., The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886, San Francisco, 1996, vol. I, p. 186).
Between late summer and early autumn of 1883, Pierre-Auguste Renoir spent over a month on the Channel Island of Guernsey, lodging at no. 4 of George Road, St. Peter Port. The beach of Moulin Huet, and the nearby bay at the east end of the island's rocky south coast within walking distance from his lodgings, provided the inspiration for approximately fifteen paintings, including Rochers de Guernesey avec personnages (plage à Guernesey), alongside Moulin Huet Bay, Guernsey (in the National Gallery, London) and Enfants au bord de la mer Guernsey (in the Barnes Foundation, Pennsylvania). The current work pictures young children playing among the rocks, a motif to which Renoir often returned. As John House observes, Renoir was enchanted by a child’s experience, 'seeking to re-create in his paintings of children his idea of the child’s immediate response to visual experience, unconditioned by the knowledge of good and evil' (J. House, ‘Renoir’s Worlds’, in Renoir, London, 1985, p. 14). In the present work, even more so than in Renoir’s other depictions of the Moulin Huet, the figures of the children are absorbed into the surroundings by way of the artist’s treatment of light. For Renoir, a scene was important for the overall atmospheric effect it created and here, vying for attention over the natural features of the beach is the play of light captured through lively brushstrokes laden with rich, liberated colour.
Renoir did not present himself to the world as a landscape painter; he chose to exhibit figure paintings and portraits at the Paris Salon, where he featured regularly. Yet, for Renoir, the depiction of the landscape offered him a means to experiment freely with line and colour. As a result of this more liberated mode of expression, his works of this genre are often varied in terms of style and paint handling. Renoir explained to Georges Rivière: 'In the open air you are inspired to use colours that would have been unimaginable in the attenuated lighting of the studio' (quoted in M. Lucy & J. House, Renoir in the Barnes Foundation, London, 2012, p. 12). Stéphane Mallarmé, too, celebrated the 'shifting shimmer of gleam and shadow' in Renoir’s paintings, 'the changing reflected lights, themselves influenced by every neighbouring thing, cast upon each advancing or departing figure, and the fleeting combinations in which these dissimilar reflections form one harmony or many, such are the favourite effects of Renoir' (S. Mallarmé, ‘The Impressionists and Edouard Manet’,in The Art Monthly Review and Photographic Portfolio, London, vol. I, no. 9, 30 September 1876; in Ruth Berson, ed., The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886, San Francisco, 1996, vol. I, p. 96). In Rochers de Guernesey avec personnages, traditional perspectival effects are softened in favour of the loose handling of radiant colour, the dappled brushstrokes moving in contrary directions across the canvas and hence capturing the energy of the sea and sky.
In a letter written from Guernsey on 27 September 1883 to his dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, Renoir wrote enthusiastically: 'I've found myself a charming beach here which is quite unlike our Normandy beaches … It feels more like being in a Watteau landscape than in the real world. So I have a source of motifs that are real, graceful and which may be of use to me' (Renoir, quoted in Wadley, ed., Renoir A Retrospective, New York, 1987, p. 159). Durand-Ruel championed Renoir, holding a one-artist exhibition for him in April 1883. Both he and Renoir himself regarded landscape as a key element in the artist’s appeal to the contemporary art market and, indeed, Renoir featured in both Impressionist sales at Hôtel Drouot in Paris in 1875 and 1877.
Although Renoir often made modest claims about his painterly style, and in the 1880s sought to re-educate himself on the works of Old Masters, the canvases produced during the artist’s brief stay in Guernsey are masterpieces of a liberated approach to painting. Unlike Monet, who sought to convey the topography of a particular location, Renoir was more interested in capturing the overall atmosphere of the natural scene in front of him, a predilection that is exemplified by the shimmering reverie of light and colour in the current painting. Rochers de Guernesey avec personnages exhibits a confidence with the handling of line and colour, contrary to Renoir’s modest words. 'I hope to give you an idea of these charming landscapes', Renoir wrote to Durand-Ruel, 'despite the slightness of what I shall be able to bring back'' (ibid., p. 159).